In the run-up to the Orthodox Union’s National Convention, which took place last weekend in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., Margy-Ruth Davis polled everyone she met about the topic she planned to speak about: the high cost of Jewish living. Davis, a community activist and executive vice president of the fundraising firm Perry Davis Associates, asked an 85-year-old widower how he had managed to put his children through Jewish day schools. “What choice did I have?” the man responded. “None, so we struggled and we did it.”

Contrast that with the response she received from a woman in her 30s who just pulled her kids out of day school. “Two-thirds of our after-tax income was eaten up by the tuition,” the woman told Davis. The financial strains were adding untold stress to her marriage and prevented her and her husband from putting away money for retirement.

Then her youngest son needed remediation, and there simply wasn’t any money in the budget. So she enrolled her children in public school. With the tens of thousands of dollars she saved, she was able to hire a Jewish studies tutor. “I’m very happy with my decision,” she told Davis. “The financial strain is off; we’ll be able to retire one day.” This woman, Davis told the audience, “feels that she has a choice.”

Most Orthodox Jews still believe that day school is a necessity, not a luxury — but a growing minority is questioning this logic in the face of exorbitant tuition costs.

“It’ll be harder for this generation of young families than it was for us,” Davis said. “The big costs come when Orthodox parents are in their early 30s. We saddle young families with the largest expenses of their lives before they reach their earning potential.”

Davis was one of four panelists who participated in a panel discussion moderated by radio host Nachum Segal, which took place at Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, N.J. on Saturday night. The other speakers included Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, founder of the National Jewish Outreach Program; Councilman David Greenfield, who helped found TEACH NYS, an umbrella group that advocates on behalf of the 500,000 Catholic, Jewish and private schoolchildren in New York State; and William Rapfogel, CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. The event, which was free and open to the public, was advertised as a talk addressing the question: Does a family have to be wealthy in order to be observant?

The cost of day schools dominated the discussion for good reason: tuition at Centrist and Modern Orthodox day schools ranges from $13,000 a year to as much as $31,000 a year per child — and Centrist Orthodox families have an average of 3.3 children. (“Day school tuition is the best contraceptive ever created,” Davis remarked.)

Greenfield disagreed that more Orthodox families are choosing not to send their children to day schools. “I simply don’t believe that not sending kids to day school is an option,” he said. He criticized day school parents — whose children make up 7.5 percent of the population of kids in New York City — for not being politically active. “Every conceivable group is organized; that’s politics,” he said. “Whoever is the most organized gets the most results.”

To register in a yeshiva, parents should have to prove that they are registered to vote, he told the audience. More members of the Orthodox community need to vote; voter turnout among Orthodox Jews is only 20 percent, Greenfield said. When the Orthodox do vote, particularly for local politicians, according to Greenfield, they should vote with a message: The single most important issue for our community is day school tuition. The ultimate goal, he said, is to configure a way for the government to pay for the secular portion of day school education.

Many members in the audience expressed little hope in the governmental approach to the day school tuition crisis. “Even if it does work out, [the governmental assistance] will be a miniscule amount of money,” one audience member said during the question-and-answer period. “And yeshivas will raise tuition by that amount of money.”

Greenfield rebutted the argument by saying that he can count on his hands the number of people doing advocacy work on behalf of the Orthodox community when it comes to the issue of governmental support for Jewish day schools. “People say, ‘Howie and Nathan, they’re going to take care of us,” he said, referring to Howie Beigelman, OU’s deputy director of public policy, and Nathan Diament, the director of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs. “But everyone has a responsibility.”

Rabbi Buchwald said that he recently sat down and counted the number of billionaires who are either Orthodox or sympathetic to Orthodox causes. He came up with a staggering 61 billionaires. “We do have the resources,” he said. “We’re just not tapping the resources properly.”

Davis suggested that Orthodox Jews view tuition as a lifelong commitment, not one that only affects parents when their children are school age. “What if everyone who receives a scholarship from a day school agrees that when they are in their 50s, they will repay it? That will make Jewish tuition a lifelong responsibility and spread that responsibility.”

Meanwhile, at the OU’s 112th Anniversary Convention held the next day, Jewish communal leaders adopted several resolutions, including one focused on Jewish education. “Parents should not stand alone in the struggle as to whether or not to provide their children with a day school education,” according the resolution. Therefore, Orthodox Union synagogues should “encourage local day schools to be a Tzedakah priority of each Orthodox Union community” and have their rabbis “counsel and advise young families to appreciate the importance of Jewish education.” The resolutions also called on OU rabbis to work with the lay leadership “to create synagogue liaisons with local and national philanthropic organizations that provide support for families with financial needs for day school education and help publicize this information in the community.”

E-mail: tamar@jewishweek.org